Eating On A Budget

Last night I went to bed with Jeffrey Steingarten's wonderful book The Man Who Ate Everything. I consider myself lucky to be able to read TWO chapters before I had to go attend to our little princess's nightly sleeping ritual. Usually before I am able to warm my seat reading a book, our little princess will come and try to get my attention in the most unruly way possible in her books. We are working on this issue. But not getting anywhere, unfortunately.

Anyway, the first chapter last night was Staying Alive. A very interesting essay exploring the possibility of living on a subsistence budget without the sacrifice of good eating. (Subsistence: the means of support life, usually referring to food and other basic commodities.)

The essay reminded me of the article I wrote back in October 2008 about the S$36 a month in meal vouchers each of our needy folks receive here and ask if anyone can survive on it. Back then everyone was about belt tightening and bootstrapping. Now, as the queues outside restaurants snake longer than ever before, the plight of our less privileged comrades fades further into our mind's deep recesses.

After I put down the book, I couldn't help but wonder how and what do people on Public Assistance Scheme eat. How do they stay alive?

To answer that question, I followed Mr. Steingarten's lead and head over to our statistics department and look for some clues about how we much we spend on food each month. Thanks to the internet, research is just a few touches on the screen.

The average household spend about S$1,069^ a month on food, which works out to be S$305 per person (the average household size is 3.5* persons) or a daily S$10.18 per person.

To make a similar comparison with someone on Public Assistance, I looked at the spending pattern of a typical household from the lowest income quintile. Making a few adjustments, such as re-routing expenses from Education to Healthcare and also Communications to Food. I doubt education at this stage is critical nor will they reach for the handphone to call for home delivery. So for a person on Public Assistance, I estimate that he or she would probably have S$93 for food from the S$360 they receive each month. Add the additional $36 meal vouchers, it would translate to S$4.30 daily for a 30-day month.

I don't think anyone would be hard-pressed to find a S$3 meal of hot food from the 28 hawker centres throughout our tiny land. For the average person, he would still be able to enjoy a coffee or tea for S$0.90 after he had his 3 square meals for the day. With leftover. While the fella on S$4.30 budget would have to think carefully if he wants to go to bed with a full belly or start his day with one.

So I texted Hubby (The One would tell me to buy 3 plates of S$2 chicken rice rather than 2 plates of S$3) to ask him if he was given S$4.30 daily for food, how would he spend it.

Hubby: "U mean to buy cooked food or food to cook?"

Me: "Either."

Hubby: "Pool the money together for 7 days and buy ingredients from wet market. Buy 2 chickens for S$15, which is good for a week."

Me: "So u think the amount is decent?"

Hubby: "I think is a question of quality."

Me: "Or put the other way, will someone be able to survive on this amount?"

Hubby: "U can't expect beef or seafood. But, yes, I think S$4.30 is possible. Even if use to buy cooked food."

Me: "Remember it is a day, not a meal."

Hubby: "Probably have to eat 2 meals instead of 3. Then load up on carbo. Around my office, u can order 2 packets of S$2 veg and meat rice. One for lunch, another dinner. That's S$4."

Me: "Terrible thought."

Hubby: "Well, still a balanced meal."

Me: "Yes."

Hubby: "If not, order 2 veg and gravy for around S$1.30 - S$1.50. Then u can eat 3 meals."

Me: "Oh my!"

I doubt I am the kind of wife who will stick with him when he only has S$4.30 a day to feed me. Our princess, on the other hand, will gleefully lap up any assortment of veg-meat-rice combo.

So as you can see, here in Singapore it is possible to stay alive with a budget of S$4.30 eating at hawker centre every day. For this economic reason and other reasons such as convenience, eating out daily is a way of life. But even so, I would think that everyone who eats out, either by choice or otherwise, would yearn for a home-cooked meal occasionally.

Out of curiosity, I wonder if there is a way to feed yourself with a S$4.30 a day budget on home cooked food. Despite what many may think that home cooked food is healthier and cheaper, I chanced upon an article the other day with a heading that read “Feed four people for A$10? Tell ’em they’re dreaming” from The Sydney Morning Herald. The paper’s test chefs concluded that “it is virtually impossible to feed four people properly” if you are buying at retail prices. It went even further to say “if you’ve got a A$10 note, a pot and a bare cupboard, forget about it. The A$10 family meal is a thing of the past.” Now that’s heartening. At least these chefs have more financial sense of the real home cooking than those chefs that our own paper took on to cook a S$10 meal back in April 2008.

Assuming that over here we have the same purchasing power parity as in Australia, is it impossible to cook at home and eat properly for S$2.50 a meal per mouth? Now, if you will recall, our guy only has S$4.30 a day who possibly can get hold of a cooking vessel but has an empty cupboard. Does it mean that he or she can’t feed himself or herself with decent home cooked food?

A very disturbing thought at that.

By the way, I am assuming that you are not on the Public Assistance Scheme like budget, please consider getting yourself The Man Who Ate Everything and join me in laughing and thinking.

This is not a paid promotional post for the book.

^ figures taken from
Report on the Household Expenditure Survey 2007/08 published by Singapore Department of Statistics
* figure taken from
Population Trends 2010 published by Singapore Department of Statistics


  1. This is interesting!

    If I really eat on budget, I guess I can save a lot of $$$.


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